What Is Zinfandel Wine?

A Guide to Buying and Drinking Zinfandel Wine

Zinfandel grapes held in a hand
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In This Article

Once thought to be native to California, the dark blue zinfandel grape can be used to make bold red wine or "white zin," a pink, affordable wine. While made from the same grapes, the two wines are distinctively different in flavor, body, sweetness, alcohol content, and price. Red zin has lots of jammy, fruity flavor and is high in alcohol while white zin has a light, sweet flavor and low alcohol. The grape is also known as Crljenak Kastelanski in its native Croatia and as primitivo in southern Italy.

Fast Facts

  • Regions: California (Sonoma, Napa, Central Coast), Puglia
  • Origin: Croatia
  • Sweetness: Medium-dry to semi-sweet
  • Color: Pink to deep purple
  • ABV: Red: 14–16%, White: 9–10%

Taste and Flavor Profile

Red zinfandel is known for its rich, dark purple color scheme, medium to high tannin levels, high alcohol content, and medium acidity. While the red wine tends to be medium-bodied and medium dry, it is bursting with flavors and aromas of jam, raspberry, blackberry, cherry, plums, cinnamon, black pepper, and licorice all wrapped around various intensities of oak.

White zinfandel is made from the same grape, but the skins are promptly removed after crushing. This creates a lighter-hued, lighter-bodied wine with lighter tannins and low alcohol. White zins tend to be lightly sweet with flavors of strawberry, cherry, and citrus. It lacks the bitterness of traditional red wine but also the complexity, making it a favorite among novice wine drinkers. Plus, it's often sold for less than $10 a bottle.

How to Taste Wine

Follow these simple steps when tasting wine to ensure you have the best experience:

  1. Look: Examine the wine through the glass, noticing the color and opacity.
  2. Smell: Swirl your glass for about 10 seconds and take a whiff. Then stick your nose into the wine glass for a deep inhale, getting your first impressions of the wine.
  3. Taste: Take a little sip and let it roll around your mouth. Note the sugar, tannins acidity, and alcohol content when first tasting, then move on to specific tasting notes (spice, fruit, wood) and finally the finish.

Grapes and Wine Regions

Zinfandel is one of the most popular wine grapes grown in California and is especially popular in northern California and the central coast. The vines like warm, sunny days but dislike intense heat, and the thin skinned-fruit is susceptible to rot. Good draining is key, making them good for planting on slopes. Zinfandel is typically grown in the summer and harvested as early as mid-August or well into fall, often called a "late harvest" zin.

Old vine zinfandels are red wines made from grapevines over 50 years old. These are prized for their intense color and balanced flavors and often fetch a high price. Old vines grapes are almost exclusively used to make red zinfandel.

Food Pairings

Red zinfandel pairs well with almost any meat—lamb, poultry, pork, beef, game, and turkey. Try pairing the flavorful red wine with grilled pork chops or roasted leg of lamb. The light sweetness in red zinfandel also works nicely with fragrant spiced dishes such as beef rendang curry. Hard, flavorful cheese is best, such as cheddar or manchego. Easy-to-drink, sweet white zinfandel pairs well with a variety of savory foods. Serve it as a counterpoint to spiced Cajun to Asian cuisines, barbecue chicken, or spicy seafood.

While zinfandel isn't well-known as an aging wine, good bottles of red are candidates for cellaring. Serve zinfandel in a red wine glass at cellar temperature (60 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit). Decant red zin for an hour for the most balanced flavor. White zin can be chilled if desired and can be served right away.

Key Producers, Brands, and Buying Tips

Red zinfandel is often easy to find in grocery stores, wine shops, and liquor stores. You'll typically find a number of options from California vineyards. Look for high elevation wines for the best quality. If you can't find a red zin, pick up a pinot noir instead. White zinfandel was pioneered by Sutter Homes, and a number of other low-cost brands make their own version. The pink wine goes for about $5 to $10 a bottle.

The following brands make reliably good zinfandels and are widely available:

  • Dry Creek Vineyards
  • Beekeeper
  • Carlisle
  • Limerick Lane
  • Crux
  • Bella
  • Twisted
  • Oak Grove
  • Woodbridge
  • Talus